Well-connected: Chief executive and founder of the charity Common Purpose Julia Middleton
This has been an extraordinary week for the BBC as it tears itself apart over one of the most catastrophic journalistic errors of modern times.
False allegations of paedophilia against an elderly Tory Party grandee have led to the resignation of the Director-General, the possible demise of the flagship Newsnight programme, the paying out of substantial libel damages and, worst of all, perhaps a shattering blow to BBC News's reputation for integrity.
How could this happen? Why did no one carry out 'basic journalistic checking' of facts? Why weren't those 'facts' put to the other side — the first rule of journalism?
We don't know, but we do know that behind this farrago is the work of a self-regarding body which calls itself the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), the organisation that took their 'McAlpine exclusive' to the BBC and whose managing editor resigned after gleefully tweeting about being ready to out a politician who was a paedophile.
In its recent submission to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, the BIJ declared that its 'output and editorial processes' would 'be a masterclass, a gold standard for evidence-based journalism … journalism of an outstanding kind.'
To describe this as hubris would be an understatement.
And at the centre of the story is an obscure but immensely well-connected member of Britain's liberal Establishment, Sir David Bell, one of five BIJ trustees.
As we shall see in this Special Mail Investigation, Bell's campaign, which began almost a decade ago, to control Britain's raucous popular press and, in the process, promote what he regards as ethical journalism, has had momentous consequences.
One evening in January 2005 at the central London headquarters of Pearson Group — owner of the Financial Times — an extraordinary working dinner took place.
The host was Julia Middleton, a friend of David Bell's and a brilliant networker, and the guests were a select group, drawn from the New-Labour-era Establishment. We know this thanks to an account of the event written for the left-of-centre New Statesman magazine by one of the attendees, the financial journalist Robert Peston, now the BBC's Business Editor.
Peston described 'a debate on media standards — with two editors, another BBC executive, an investment banker, a Bank of England luminary, academics and a bishop, inter alia — (which) was more practical than most. We'd been summoned to dinner … by Julia Middleton, the unrecognised toiler for the rehabilitation of the concerned, engaged citizen.
'One of Middleton's great skills is to persuade police constables, youth group organisers, permanent secretaries, FTSE chief executives and head teachers that they can learn from each other and could even cure some of society's ills. However, almost all her meetings end up with a collective wail about the irresponsibility and excessive power of the media.
So she herded us into Pearson's art-deco palace on the Strand in the hope that we could find an answer or two. Something may come of the proposals that were offered. Meanwhile, the discovery of the evening for me was that Pearson's executive washroom is unisex, a la Ally McBeal. What is Marjorie Scardino, Pearson's personable chief executive, thinking of?'
Peston was unnervingly prescient about one thing.
Something has come of that soiree seven years ago.
That something is the Leveson Inquiry into Britain's beleaguered newspaper industry. Its conclusions, which are to be published imminently, could have huge implications for a press that has been free of government control for 300 years, and for freedom of speech itself.
Sir David Bell's certainly a very busy bee. A greying, dishevelled figure in an ill-fitting suit, he appears to have been by far the most assiduous of the six 'assessors' appointed by the government to advise Lord Justice Leveson and his Inquiry.
Bell is an ideological bedmate of the aforesaid Julia Middleton — another very busy bee who has been described as the best-connected woman you've never heard of.
But while some of the Leveson assessors have patchy attendance records at the Inquiry, Sir David — whose unbridled eagerness to join the judge in his private rooms when the sittings rise has been remarked upon by observers — seems to have barely missed a day of the public hearings that began almost a year ago.
Public-spirited you may say. Except that an investigation by the Daily Mail raises serious questions about the suitability of Bell as an assessor and the impact this may have had on the objectivity and neutrality of the Inquiry itself.
Bell is a trustee and a former chairman of a leadership training organisation called Common Purpose, whose thousands of 'graduates' have been described as the 'Left's answer to the old boys' network.' (though not all share the same political views). Their identities are well protected.
Founded by Ms Middleton and registered as a charity, Common Purpose boasts a 'considerable reach' throughout senior positions in public life. Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been spent on sending public servants on its courses.
Three of the six Leveson assessors have Common Purpose connections, either through direct participation or through senior colleagues within the organisations they lead or have led.
Bell and Middleton set up the Media Standards Trust, a lobby group which presented a huge amount of evidence to the Inquiry. The Media Standards Trust, whose chairman was Bell, gave its 'prestigious' Orwell Prize for political writing to a journalist who turned out to have made up parts of his 'award-winning' articles.
The Media Standards Trust established Hacked Off, the virulently anti-popular-press campaign group which has boasted of its role in significantly increasing the Inquiry's terms of reference. The Media Standards Trust shared the same headquarters address as Common Purpose. It then shared an address with Hacked Off, whose funding it controlled.
Many of those who provided the most hostile anti-press evidence to Leveson are linked to senior figures at the Media Standards Trust and Hacked Off.
The Media Standards Trust has strong links with Ofcom, the statutory media regulator which, despite its denials, some suspect has ambitions to regulate Britain's free press. Ofcom's ex-chairman Lord Currie is a Leveson assessor.
Much of the financing of the Media Standards Trust comes from a charity of which Bell is a trustee — a practice that, while legal, would seem to many to be inappropriate.
Despite being formed by the Media Standards Trust, which is campaigning for 'transparency and accountability in the news', Hacked Off refuses to make explicit the sources of its own funding.
And, of course, Bell is a trustee of the now notorious Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has wreaked such damage on the BBC.
Indeed, like some giant octopus, Common Purpose's tentacles appear to reach into every cranny of the inner sanctums of Westminster, Whitehall and academia — bodies that often view Britain's unruly, disruptive press with disdain and distrust.
Lord Justice Leveson has already said that he hoped his report would be based on 'unanimity' of thought between him and his half dozen assessors, none of whom have ever worked in the popular press.
It should be stressed that there is absolutely no suggestion that Leveson — who did not choose his assessors — has any connection to Common Purpose nor that he isn't a man of integrity who has conducted his inquiry with impartiality.
But imagine the public outcry if it emerged during a criminal trial that half of the jurors, and many of the witnesses, were linked to bodies that had 'wailed' about the defendant, against whom they had a powerful shared antipathy.
That is the case with the Leveson Inquiry, as we shall show in this investigation into the Bell and Middleton network of influence. We will also be raising questions about their charity's own behaviour. For we can reveal that …
Common Purpose almost certainly breached the Data Protection Act (which guards the confidentiality of digitally stored information), the very charge levelled by the Leveson Inquiry against virtually all newspapers.
Common Purpose is connected to some of Britain's most powerful lobby and PR groups, whose influence on British politics has provoked continuing controversy.
Common Purpose linked figures have a significant influence on the appointments process in Whitehall. Until last year, Common Purpose's David Bell sat on the committee that appointed Britain's 'Top 200' civil servants.
As we shall now show, Hacked Off, one of the lobby groups created by Sir David Bell (who stepped down as chairman of the Media Standards Trust only when he was appointed a Leveson assessor) and Julia Middleton's network played a significant role in creating and shaping the Leveson Inquiry, which will cost the taxpayer almost £6 million.
That is their campaign's proud boast. And, as we shall see in this investigation, it is hard to dispute.
In Julia Middleton's book Beyond Authority, which sets out Common Purpose's leadership philosophy, she describes how she was told by a 'group of peers' the way in which to 'force' issues on to the agenda at Westminster.
It required: 'A small committed and co-ordinated group of people producing pressure from the outside. Two or three determined fifth columnists on the inside. And the stamina from both groups to keep on and on and on putting them on the agenda until they eventually had to be discussed …'
In another passage she wrote: 'I spoke to a friend recently who described how she had set someone up. Using all her charm and flattery, she had drawn him in and then installed him as a convenient useful idiot … My friend's intention was to get him to produce a report which she knew full well would be a perfect smokescreen for her own activities …
'Have I ever done this? Yes … it was certainly useful to produce the distraction of creating a sub-committee, led by someone who did not really understand the big picture, to look into an issue in depth, with no timetable, so we could get on with what we saw as important issues.'
In the past year, a firestorm has swept British journalism. The initial spark was the Guardian's revelations that individuals employed by the News of the World had illegally hacked the voicemail messages of mobile phones of hundreds of celebrities and people in the news, including murder victim Milly Dowler.
Phone hacking is illegal. Currently dozens of journalists are under arrest in relation to such offences or making illegal payments to public officials.
But it was the claim that the News of the World had deleted Milly's phone messages that provoked Prime Minister David Cameron — who against the advice of many had persisted in retaining former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press spokesman — to set up an inquiry into the British press, led by the respected Lord Justice Leveson.
No matter that the Guardian's crucial allegation — that the News of the World had deleted voicemails from Milly's phone which caused her parents to have had false hopes that she was alive — turned out almost certainly not to be true.
By the time that terrible error was revealed last December, the News of the World had been closed and the Inquiry widened to envelop the whole of the British press.
That is the triumph of those who, like Bell, have striven for years towards restraining what they see as the 'excessive power' of the British press. Yet, far from representing the 'general public' and the 'people' — both terms which they frequently appropriate — those people who know best are drawn from a narrow and powerful section of the liberal Establishment that has come into increasing conflict with much of Britain's newspaper industry.
Significantly, among the leadership of Common Purpose, the Media Standards Trust and Hacked Off, vested interests intertwine. Many, but by no means all, of the most prominent activists are politically left of centre. Some are involved in the quangos that the New Labour project created.
As such, they are representative of a new elite.
Bodies such as the BBC, the London School of Economics and, as noted, Financial Times owner Pearson Group are conspicuously over-represented.
'Big money' in the form of senior executives from some multinational banks and financial institutions most culpable in the global financial crisis of 2008 (and the resulting multi-billion-pound public bailouts) is also a notable presence.
No friends of the popular press, which has savaged City greed, are these. And at the heart of this matrix stand David Bell and Julia Middleton.
Lib Dem donor and one-time SDP activist Bell is a former chairman of the Financial Times, at the time Fleet Street's most zealous supporter of the European Union. Bell is also a former director of the FT's parent company Pearson, which was a financial backer of New Labour.
Mother-of-five Middleton is the founder, chief executive and presiding guru of Common Purpose. She has been described as 'messianic' in her crusade to improve standards in corporate and public life.
The question, of course, is why do so many of her soirees end in 'a collective wail' about the irresponsibility of the media?
A clue can perhaps be found in a speech made to the LSE in 2004 by Geoff Mulgan, with whom Middleton had founded the New Labour think-tank Demos, described by the Pearson-owned Economist magazine — of which David Bell is still a non-executive director — as 'Britain's most influential think-tank'.
A Guardian report of the Mulgan speech was headlined 'The media's lies poison our system: The ethic of searching for truth has gone; now there's just cynicism.'
Mulgan, who with Peter Mandelson was an intellectual founding father of New Labour and later became Blair's Head of Policy at No 10, thundered:
'Problematic, however, is the lack of a strong ethic of searching for the truth in much of the media … For from Europe to migrants, there is a wide gap between what the public believes and the facts … For many [newspapers] it doesn't much matter whether what they print is true.
'The net result is that the public are left with systematically incorrect perspectives on the world, on issues ranging from Europe and migrants to public services … Journalists who used to dine with politicians now dine on them.'
It seemed what really concerned Mulgan — described as 'the ultimate New Labourite' — was the conservative press's antipathy to the EU, mass immigration and incompetent public services.
There can be little doubt that he was referring to newspapers like The Sun, Express, Mail and Telegraph — papers read by the majority. It is they who were the most critical of New Labour's policies on the EU and mass immigration.
It was they, we can surmise, who provoked Ms Middleton's wails.
Common Purpose has claimed more than 35,000 people have 'graduated' from its courses in the UK and across the world. As well as firms in the private sector, government departments, local authorities, quangos, charities and police forces have all sent staff on Common Purpose's leadership programmes. A week long '20:20' course in advanced leadership costs almost £5,000.
Common Purpose 'alumni' are encouraged to network and assist each other, though a full list of their identities is not publicly available.
They have a private website, which requires a password to log in. Members who disclose information from this site face expulsion. Meetings are held under the so-called Chatham House rules, under which no one can be quoted by name. So much for the 'transparency' in public life that is being called for by the Media Standards Trust and Hacked Off lobbyists.
However, the public area of the Common Purpose website, Middleton's book Beyond Authority and other sources do reveal the identity of a number of prominent officials, 'graduates', course lecturers or those associates whom Middleton considers to be her 'inspirational leaders'.
Sir Bob Kerslake, the recently appointed head of the Home Civil Service and Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, is a Common Purpose graduate, according to the organisation's website. Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, has a full-page profile on the Common Purpose International website's 'who we are' section.
Jon Williams, the BBC's World News Editor since 2006, is also a graduate of Common Purpose London.
Professor Richard Sambrook, who was the BBC's Head of News and director of the World Service, is quoted praising Common Purpose on the website. He spoke at a Common Purpose event but has denied being otherwise involved.
The BBC has told the Mail that, in a five-year period, it spent more than £126,000 on Common Purpose courses.
But it is Leveson assessor Lord Currie who (as we show later in fuller detail) illustrates the incestuous relationships that intertwine throughout this Inquiry.
He was the first chairman of the media regulator Ofcom, where former colleagues there included the ex-BBC executive Richard Hooper. Mr Hooper was a member of a review panel for Sir David Bell's Media Standards Trust, while fellow Ofcom board member Ian Hargreaves was another founder of Labour think-tank Demos along with Julia Middleton. Hargreaves is also now a Hacked Off supporter and Leveson witness.
During Currie's tenure, Ofcom sent members of its staff on Common Purpose courses, although he is not personally a member of Common Purpose.
Another Common Purpose luminary is Chris Bryant MP — exposed by the press for posing in his underpants on internet dating sites. Bryant, who has led the charge against Rupert Murdoch in the Commons and was a Leveson witness, was Common Purpose's London manager for two years.
Among the senior police officers who are also Common Purpose graduates is Cressida Dick, who was savaged by the press for her leading role in the 2005 shooting of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in a London Underground carriage.
It was Assistant Commissioner Dick who personally chose Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers to head the investigation into phone hacking and payments to police at News International.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Akers was in charge of the child protection team in Islington when the Evening Standard exposed a long-standing paedophile sex ring in the borough's children's homes.
Ms Akers was also in charge of the Met's North West protection team in the months leading up to the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie, who was tortured and murdered by her guardians. This episode, which again triggered a firestorm of media criticism and resulted in a public inquiry, led to her receiving 'words of advice' — the police equivalent of a reprimand. Neither episode figures prominently in her official profiles. Indeed, none of this was mentioned when Ms Akers told the Leveson Inquiry that News International's transgressions could not be defended as being in the public interest — a claim vigorously rebutted by News International's lawyers, who asked how Ms Akers was qualified to define the public interest.
In all, Ms Akers appeared before the Leveson inquiry three times — more than any other witness.
Lord Blair, Cressida Dick's boss at the Met, was another Leveson witness. Under Blair's leadership, the Met spent tens of thousands of pounds on Common Purpose courses. The Met reviewed its training requirements in 2009.
Since the year Blair stepped down (2008-09), the Met says, no money has been spent on Common Purpose courses.
This week, Lord Blair said: 'I support Common Purpose, as do the vast majority of leaders of major private and public organisations.'
One of the most lucrative connections between Common Purpose and the police involves the West Midlands force. Sir Paul Scott-Lee, the former West Midlands' Chief Constable — now a consultant — is a Leveson assessor.
Using Freedom of Information requests, the Mail has established that 27 West Midlands officers, including one Assistant Chief Constable, went on Common Purpose courses under Sir Paul's leadership.
It appears that the West Midlands expenditure on such courses during this period was significantly more than that of the far larger Metropolitan force.
For a number of years Common Purpose has attracted the obsessive attention of the more outré internet conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, as well as bloggers on the far Right. This has provided a convenient smokescreen against a more rational investigation.
But a number of credible parties have also sought to discover more about the charity's presence within public bodies. In 2007, for example, Tory MP Philip Davies — concerned at the then New Labour government's apparent close links with the organisation — lodged written questions to a number of secretaries of state about how much their departments had spent on sending civil servants on Common Purpose courses.
The answers, which weren't widely publicised but can be found on official parliamentary records, showed a total spend over a handful of years of more than £1 million.
Davies was told that the Department of Work and Pensions had spent almost £240,000 in five years, on courses which had 'helped foster valuable partnerships in the local community which can be used to improve the service offered to our customers'. The Ministry of Defence had spent more than £300,000 over the same period.
While Common Purpose could do little about this kind of scrutiny, we now come to perhaps the most serious charge against this body: the suppressing and smearing of individual citizens who had lodged Freedom of Information questions about its activities.
On the specious basis that FoI legislation was being abused, causing damage to the charity's reputation, Common Purpose compiled a 'blacklist' of the individuals concerned. Common Purpose officials sent private, personal details of these people to public bodies around the country, with the warning that new FoI requests about the charity from those listed should be treated as 'vexatious'.
In other words, Common Purpose tried to block the legal rights of those individuals and prevent their freedom of expression.
The privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), investigated the affair, following complaints by five of those on the blacklist.
In response to a Freedom of Information request from this newspaper, a spokeswoman for the ICO said: 'As far as we are aware, 18 individuals had their personal details disclosed by Common Purpose by way of the list provided to various public bodies.'
She said these details could 'contain their name, and if known, also their address and/or phone number'.
In late 2009, the ICO ruled that Common Purpose was 'unlikely to have complied with provisions in the Data Protection Act 1998 on processing data'. Their spokeswoman confirmed to the Mail: 'In this case, the Act was probably breached.'
The ICO decided not to take 'further action' against Common Purpose 'after the charity confirmed that it no longer distributed the list' and Julia Middleton issued a statement in which she said: 'As an organisation we made a genuine mistake in this instance. But it was in a very rapidly changing legal context …'
Now let's put this mitigation into the context of the Leveson Inquiry and those Common Purpose-linked organisations, the Media Standards Trust and Hacked Off.
Operation Motorman was a 2003 investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office into alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act by virtually all newspapers including the Mail and other media organisations, who had used a Hampshire private detective agency to obtain anything from addresses and phone numbers to, in some instances, licence plate owners and criminal records.
This was a time when the full implications of the Act were by no means clear. No journalist was ever prosecuted as a result of Motorman.
But Hacked Off and the Media Standards Trust have pushed ever harder for the Motorman files to be made public, and individual journalists named.
One is minded of Middleton's explanation that Common Purpose had erred because of 'a very rapidly changing legal context'. Yet the charity's own data protection breaches were committed a full five years after Operation Motorman.
This episode provides a telling insight into the 'don't do as we do but do as we say' mindset of Common Purpose's leadership.
And yet who is the ultra-busy assessor helping Lord Justice Leveson write his report that could shape the future of the hitherto free press and the right to freedom of expression? Common Purpose trustee and former chairman Sir David Bell, creator of the Media Standards Trust and supporter of Hacked Off.
In his declaration of interests to the Inquiry, Bell explains away the blacklist episode like this: 'Common Purpose has had several dealings in the past few years with the ICO in connection with comments that have been made repeatedly about it on the web without, in Common Purpose's view, any foundation at all.'
With what can only be described as rank disingenuousness, there is no mention of breaching the law. When Bell's participation as a Leveson assessor was announced last year, a Michael White, who had been on Common Purpose's Freedom of Information blacklist, pointed out the contradiction.
Mr White, from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, was reported in the Sunday Telegraph as saying of Common Purpose: 'My private address was in their blacklist and I was described as a vexatious and harassing individual.
'I felt sick to think that Common Purpose had passed this around half the public authorities in the country. They got this data from their contacts in councils. The hypocrisy is stunning. These people quite rightly condemn invasions of privacy by the press while invading people's privacy themselves.
'They demand transparency for other people and fight it for themselves.'
Critics of Common Purpose can also be found among public figures who have had first-hand experience of its methods and networking.
David Gilbertson, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Assistant Inspector of HM Constabulary, told us: 'I was invited to join Common Purpose some years ago. I went to six or eight training sessions. I had just been promoted to Commander …
'I dropped out half way through the course. I thought it was a waste of my time and public money. The fees were being paid by the Met.
'Some there clearly wanted to network … I know people use Common Purpose to do deals, because one person on the course turned up at my office in Scotland Yard with someone else pitching for an IT contract. I said I didn't do contracts. It certainly wasn't an application through the normal system.
'People do see it as a way of getting on. On promotion forms, police officers are giving membership of Common Purpose as evidence of their ability to “negotiate”. Or their competence.
'When I dropped out, I got a hard time from them. I was phoned by an organiser who told me I couldn't call myself a Common Purpose graduate if I left. “You've got to finish,” he warned me.'
Perhaps the final word on Common Purpose should go to Demetrious Panton, 44, an employment law advisor who has worked as an equalities consultant for many local authorities and national government bodies including John Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, for which he co-authored a report on race.
'It's a new old boys' network,' he explains 'but the Left's version of it — and I don't like secretive deal-making and “group think” of any kind.
'What is interesting is that the same people appear in the same jobs, in different places, as if through a revolving door. They work for local authorities, leave, then come back as freelance “consultants” with huge, inflated fees. They are often mediocre and there is no evidence of how or why they were chosen.
'They can leave a council with a terrible reputation yet pop up next minute as head of a regulatory body and as a trustee of numerous bodies. It is a real money-spinner.
'I got a visit from a Common Purpose group in 1998. I then worked for Coventry Council as Area Co-ordinator for all its services in North Coventry, a very poor area. My boss David Galliers organised the visit. He was openly a member of Common Purpose.
'Common Purpose was a big thing at Coventry Council, it was the thing to be. About 20 members of Common Purpose locally visited my office as part of their training and I was required to talk to them about my work. They also went on a tour of the very poor estates I served, and met top local government officers. The area I worked for was very deprived, yet I had to put on a spread for these people. They came and they ate and they drank and they looked at the poor people.
'I had an office that over-looked a particularly poor estate, and they looked at it through my windows and briefly visited it and I remember thinking that it was like a jamboree, an outing. I felt embarrassed by it, and uncomfortable for the residents that they were coming to look at. I didn't want to be part of it.
'It was like the visit at Christmas from the aunt that no one wanted. None of the individuals seemed to understand the real issues facing poor, working-class areas. I felt they were patronising and superficial, and that they were doing this to be in the fashion, rather than because they were really interested.
'People in employment interviews should ask: “What networks do you belong to?” If you apply now for a job in local government, you have to state your relationship to any local politicians. So why not also to Common Purpose?
'We need transparency in local government, not this modern version of the freemasons' handshake.'
The Daily Mail